Mildred Pierce


Director: Michael Curtiz Producer: Jerry Wald
Writers: Ranald MacDougall from a novel by James M. Cain
Cast: Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Eve Arden, Ann Blyth, Bruce Bennett
Studio: Warner Bros. Year: 1945

Why I DVRed It: I’d love to say that I DVRed it because of a love of film noir—and yes, I, like pretty much everyone else, love film noir—or because of an interest in seeing a Michael Curtiz film other than Casablanca or White Christmas or because of an interest in James Cain adaptations or literally dozens of other reasons. But really, I just DVRed this for Joan Crawford. And specifically for my memory of Mommie Dearest, especially for the scene in which Joan receives the Oscar for Mildred Pierce while faking pneumonia. In Mommie Dearest, she puts on makeup and invites reporters to see her on her front steps, saying, “I would rather be here with you than anywhere else in the world. You, all of you here and everywhere, gave me this award tonight. And I accept it from you and only you. I love all of you. Now please forgive me, good night.” It is a high point of Faye Dunaway hamming up her Joan Crawford accent, though it is not the best part of the film (I like the sequence with the uneaten steak best).

Mommie Dearest is heavily fictionalized, of course. In reality, she accepted the award in bed (playing up the illness angle, after all) and opined, “Whether the Academy voters were giving the Oscar to me, sentimentally, for Mildred or for 200 years of effort, the hell with it — I deserved it.” Crazily, that’s not even the best Joan Crawford Academy Awards story (no, the best is the spillover from her feud with Bette Davis on the set of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, itself a great film)! With that background, though, I was eager to see the real Joan doing what she did best—acting, not abusing her children.

Presentation on TCM: Mildred Pierce was presented as part of TCM’s “Summer of Darkness” series, which airs film noir movies on Fridays throughout June and July. As Mildred Pierce was shown in the afternoon, there was no introduction from anyone at the network.

Synopsis: In true noir fashion, Mildred Pierce opens with a murder: Monte Beragon (Scott) is shot, crying “Mildred.” Mildred Pierce (Crawford) contemplates suicide by the docks then eventually is brought in for questioning about the death of Monte, her second (and current) husband. The rest of the story is told in flashback as she tells the police of her past. She was married to Bert Pierce (Bennett) but divorced him when he proved to not be successful enough to support Mildred and her two daughters, particularly the eldest, Veda (Blyth), who aspires to be wealthy. Mildred goes on her own and becomes wealthy by starting a restaurant chain, but it is still not enough for Veda, who runs away and becomes a singer in a sleazy club until Mildred marries Monte, of whom Veda is quite fond. But, of course, he ends up murdered… but by whom?!?

Veda and Monte. © 1945 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.
Veda and Monte. © 1945 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

Analysis (contains spoilers): Mildred Pierce was the first hit Joan Crawford vehicle in years, and she had to fight to get the part. Warner Brothers executives liked the idea of her in the lead, but the film’s director, Michael Curtiz, had little desire of working with the notoriously difficult star. He considered her a has-been and insisted she screen test for the part, likely as a way of deterring her from taking the role. But she swallowed her pride, took the test, and won the part, which allowed her to show off some of the finest acting of her career.

The film is very much a product of its time, combining two staple box office formulas of the 1940s: the film noir and the domestic melodrama. The setup is pure noir: a murder at the beginning leads to a flashback and ultimately a confession. In the end, domesticity is restored, and the wrongdoers are punished. The film uses expressionistic lighting, cigarette smoke throughout (Mildred is even told by the detective that it is ok if she smokes through her narrative, as if it would not be okay in a noir…), subjective narration, the Anywhere, USA setting (although most of the action centers around Glendale, California and the area immediately surrounding Los Angeles, it could be anywhere—the interiors of Mildred’s restaurants even look a lot like the roadside diners in The Postman Always Rings Twice (also based on a work by James Cain) and The Killers), and all the classic clothing of the genre (floppy hats and low necklines for Mildred, baggy suits and fedoras for some of the men). Curtiz seems especially interested in using lighting to define the moral viewpoints of the film. Crawford is lit in shadow throughout her deposition to the police. However, once cleared of blame and suspicion, the police open the blinds in the detective’s office, lighting her brilliantly in white—her innocence, honor, and even beauty restored.

Mildred is questioned in shadow. © 1945 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.
Mildred is questioned in shadow. © 1945 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.
But she is lit once she's cleared of suspicion. © 1945 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.
But she is lit once she’s cleared of suspicion. © 1945 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

Throughout the main story, too, Joan Crawford is generally seen in daylight (or, if it is night, she’s indoors and well lit in the classical style), though the movie opens on her at night, and it is night throughout her police interview.

Thus, the use of shadow indicates our own suspicions of her and her motives (she could be just as quick to love someone unconditionally or to kill). When she is trustworthy (as a loving mother or domestic worker), she is well lit, but when she is under suspicion, she is a creature of the night. This is, of course, the norm in noir, but the film is just as much a melodrama as it is a noir. Unlike in typical noir, Mildred Pierce exists largely in a sphere of heightened emotion and depthless characters. The characters (other than Mildred) are stock characters: the loving good husband, the horny chauvinist, the effete rich man, the old maid, and the disgraceful daughter. The audience is meant to feel bad for Mildred when her daughter, flush with cash after conning a wealthy youth that she was pregnant, decries Mildred’s efforts to give Veda the lifestyle she wants:

With this money, I can get away from you. From you and your chickens and your pies and your kitchens and everything that smells of grease. I can get away from this shack with its cheap furniture. And this town and its dollar days, and its women that wear uniforms and its men that wear overalls.

The audience feels pangs at every one of those words—poor Millie! But more, the film is melodramatic in its treatment of class and love. This is not a film about upward mobility and happiness; it is a film about being stuck where one is and the tragedy of being stuck. As Veda tells Mildred, she’ll always just be “a common frump whose father lived over a grocery store and whose mother took in washing.” And as Veda herself learns, men like Monte will never want to marry commoners like her, girls whose mothers and fathers labored to make the American Dream a reality. And isn’t that just awful? None of this is to say the film is a Douglas Sirk-style tearjerker, but neither is it a hardnosed detective feature. Rather, it’s just a film made in the classical style prevalent of 1945, only with some noir underpinnings.

But as much as the film was so very 1945, it was also somewhat forward thinking, showing an independent woman surviving in the harshness of a male world. Mildred asks for and is granted a divorce early in the picture and largely denies male subjection until she sees it as a tool for restoring domestic harmony with her class-obsessed daughter. Her divorce is predicated on two principles: 1) that she loves her children more than she loves Bert, and 2) that she wants a better consumerist life than Bert can provide. Such divorces were increasingly common prior to the 1930s, as historians such as Elaine Tyler May have pointed out. May writes, for instance, of an increase in the number of divorces that cited “neglect to provide” as the grounds for divorce. In these cases, it was not uncommon for the husband and wife to simply have disagreed about how much the man was supposed to “provide” for the wife, and that seems to be the case for Mildred and Bert. They had a nice life, even though Bert was out of work, but it wasn’t enough for Veda, which meant it was not enough for Mildred.

Divorce allows Mildred to navigate an independent sphere, but to do so, she has to avoid subjugation to the men around her. Before her divorce is even formalized, she denies a very strong sexual advance from her realtor friend Wally (Carson), and, after making a business plan with Wally and Monte, she dates Monte for a bit before leaving him due to his unwonted relationship with Veda. Mildred thus becomes mostly independent, though she is, of course, subservient always to the ambitions of Veda.

During the film, Mildred seems to navigate independence and even—by 1940s standards at least—maleness. It’s easy to argue that Mildred projects femininity and masculinity in different contexts, as several analyses have done, and certainly that reading holds up:

Mildred wears a mixture of masculine and feminine clothing while getting her restaurant ready. © 1945 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.
Mildred wears a mixture of masculine and feminine clothing while getting her restaurant ready. © 1945 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

We see Mildred wearing men’s clothes and her hair up when she is in business settings (notably the flannel shirt she wears before her restaurant opens) and looking feminine—either domesticated or sexualized, depending on the setting—when at home or on a date. But let us not say the movie is outright feminist. After all, the film is quick to make sure we realize Mildred and Veda are still women. Mildred is only really ever domestic. As she puts it at the beginning of the flashback, “I was always in the kitchen. I felt as though I’d been born in a kitchen and lived there all my life, except for the few hours it took to get married.” She has multiple lives in the movie, but she’s never out of the kitchen in any of them. We first see her in the kitchen in her first life, with Bert. Then, in her second life, she takes a job baking pies and working as a waitress. In her third life, she is a restauranteur, as often in the kitchen as in the fur coats she can now afford. The movie seems to imply that the only acceptable paths for women are at least tangentially related to the domestic sphere. And, of course, the movie ends with domesticity firmly reinforced, as Mildred and Bert reunite, the evil between them (i.e. their own daughter, Veda) now destroyed.

The film ends with Mildred and Bert walking through an archway at dawn, as though they are remarried and starting anew, free of Veda and her evil. © 1945 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.
The film ends with Mildred and Bert walking through an archway at dawn, as though they are remarried and starting anew, free of Veda and her evil. © 1945 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

The alternative path for feminine independence is taken by Veda, who navigates independence by conning men sexually and then singing for them in sleazy nightclubs. And, of course, she acts like a typical hysterical girl when she murders Monte simply because he will never love her the way she loves him. This act is ultimately what restores Mildred to the domestic comfort of Bert, and the murder thus allows for Mildred to be the kind of women the 1940s male audience wants her to be, while also destroying the elitist sexual deviant (cheating on Mildred with her own daughter) and reinforcing the dream of a classless America. But I digress.

For other “feminist” characters, the movie provides the audience with Ida (Arden), Veda’s business associate. She is the stereotypical old maid, and she seems to exist mainly to say lines like “When men get around me, they get allergic to wedding wings.” Wally describes Ida as not a woman, and Ida says she’s seen more as the “big sister type.” As for men, Ida wishes she could “get along without them,” too. Obviously, Ida would be a lesbian in a different version of this film,  but, of course, in a 1945 picture, her sort of talk is meant for comic relief more than an actual path for feminine independence. The joke is that she needs men, but the film never really presents a decent male for anyone to want.

Mildred Pierce offers three male “types.” First is Bert. He is the requisite “good guy,” the loving husband, strong provider, and caring father, except that he never proves to be strong or particularly caring. We see him mourn for the death of one daughter (Kay) and help Mildred find and prevent the death of the other (Veda), but he seems unable to “be a man” and take care of his business—he needs Mildred to wear the pants, even though in the household they set up in the beginning, Mildred is very much reduced to domestic servitude. Mildred says she made a mistake in leaving Bert, and the audience would agree but only because he is the least bad option presented. The second male “type” shown is Wally, a chauvinistic sack of shit who talks about Mildred’s “gams” and makes an immediate move on her after finding out she’s single. He is loud and brash but ultimately supportive of Mildred. Of course, he also helps Veda in her con of that poor nice young rich boy. Wally is the heteronormative alpha male, but the film makes it clear he is not the type of man Mildred needs, nor does it imply that anyone should be like Wally. (As an aside, I love the acting done by Jack Carson in the role—he hams up all the chauvinistic behavior but plays subtle in scenes of drama with Mildred.) And the third man offered is Monte, who is basically a fancily dressed, manicured, accented, elitist prick. He seems okay at times, but of course he turns out to be a mega pervert, preying on both Mildred and Veda, and he ultimately costs Mildred her namesake restaurants and her wealth. I love the presentation of him—he looks and acts like Clark Gable if he were asked to portray Tennessee Williams—but everyone knows he’s trouble. In having Mildred return to the least bad kind of male, the film seems to suggest not that Mildred was better off going on her own but that everything would’ve been fine if she’d just stuck by the nice guy. But alas!

Should I Have DVRed This on TCM: Yes, despite my criticisms of the film’s handling of gender, I thoroughly enjoyed Mildred Pierce (and, to be fair, the movie is pretty progressive in terms of gender for 1945, and it could be argued that Mildred and Bert will return home but with Mildred now in a position of power…). The acting is superb, and the story provides such a weird mix of banal and bizarre that it keeps a first-time viewer fully surprised. I love the amalgamation of melodrama and noir the film makes. I am tempted to make fun of any melodrama, typically, but damn if Curtiz didn’t pull it off.

As an aside, a friend of mine remarked recently that spending a lot of time in Glendale, California makes Veda seem less insane. Something to consider.

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